It’s 1991 and you march into Sam Goody. Making a bee-line for the new releases you see it in three different forms, vinyl, cassette and CD. You’ve been waiting for what it seems like forever and as you look at that illuminated, blue background with a lanky man, dressed in black and holding himself in quiet contemplation you stand there. The CD is $20 bucks, so you go for the old reliable cassette that’s 7.99. Waiting for the B41 you unwrap the package, change the cassette you were listening to and study the lyrics. 20 minutes later you’re heading home and as you press play, you find songs that will stay with you forever. James Taylor has had some iconic hits in his time. He has been a prolific writer for well over 40 years. But it wasn’t until his album New Moon Shine that for one Black teen in Brooklyn changed the way she heard the music.
Now in the MP3 age, you can skip a song and possibly you would only download what was pushed by record companies. Then you would miss gifts like “Oh, Brother.” During the early 90s, when you’re living through trickle-down economics cassettes were the way to go, however, the tradeoff was you couldn’t skip around like on a CD. That’s what makes the 25-year-old record a gem and still hold up. In essence, you’re forced to let the music play and each song tells its own insulated story.
While “Copperline,” a song about Taylor’s childhood and a remake of Sam Cooke’s “Everybody Loves to Cha Cha Cha” made it to the adult contemporary chart, songs like “(I’ve Got to) Stop Thinkin’ ‘Bout That” made this album go platinum. Take the anti-Captain America song “The Frozen Man.” It’s a song about a man found encapsulated in ice and “rescued” nearly a hundred years later. But his story is not about a man who is an excellent physical specimen. Instead, he’s described as a Frankenstein type monster that has been grafted together by modern science. He functions but “when the children see [him] cry.” He also had a family long since dead from “extreme old age.” This popsicle of a man’s isolation is palpable and you wonder if anyone did him a favor by resuscitating him. Then there is the longtime standard “The Water is Wide.” Singers such as Joan Baez have covered it, but Taylor’s version is haunting and every time you listen to it, there is some new gem that your ear picks out. The cello helps exudes a hopeful melancholy that two and a half decades later still feels current.
There are political songs and upbeat ones. For that Black young lady in Brooklyn, she finally understood what it meant by grown-folk music. That’s what New Moon Shine may do for you as well.